Applying the Arts to MPA Planning and Management: Four Examples

MPA News

In very general terms, the human mind has a logical side (the left half of the brain) and an emotional side (the right half). The activities of MPA planning and management tend to engage the logical side, involving the application of math and science and developing practical solutions to conservation challenges.

But savvy MPA practitioners recognize that engaging the emotional mind, too, can be a useful strategy for educating and motivating people toward conservation. The arts provide a way of doing that. "MPA practitioners need to be able to reach people in a way that is compelling enough for them to stop and listen to the conservation messages we want to share," says Liz Moore of the (U.S.) National Marine Sanctuary Program. "Art is fundamental to human nature and appeals to all of us, and presents a way to get people to pay attention." Moore led a workshop on MPAs and the arts at last May's International Marine Conservation Congress.

How can MPA practitioners harness creative processes as part of their outreach and education work? Here are examples of four partnerships between artists and conservation initiatives:


Underwater sculptures: Serving as habitat, visitor management tool, and revenue source

In May 2006, sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor built what may have been the world's first underwater sculpture park. Located within the Moliniere/Beausejour Marine Protected Area along the coast of Grenada in the Caribbean, the sculpture park covers an area of 880 square meters, in water as deep as 25 meters. The cement artworks are a picturesque collection of life-size human figures. (A gallery of photos is at www.underwatersculpture.com.)

In addition to expressing Taylor's artistry, the sculptures were designed to serve two management purposes for the MPA, he says. The site had suffered considerable hurricane damage in recent years, so the artworks would provide a new base for marine life to reestablish itself. In addition, the sculptures would help draw divers and snorkelers away from areas of natural coral reef in the MPA, where over-use by visitors posed a threat to ecosystem health. The art has already had an effect, says Taylor, diverting at least 50% of visitor traffic from a nearby area that had previously served as the MPA's main snorkeling site. (To be sure, the sculpture park has also raised visitation levels at the MPA overall. Prior to the sculptures, Moliniere Bay received just 200 visitors per year; now 50-100 visitors per day is normal for the high tourism season.)

Taylor has been commissioned to create a massive collection of more than 400 underwater sculptures for another MPA, the National Marine Park of Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Punta Nizuc in Mexico. He says MPAs are more attractive to him as sites for his work than unprotected areas. "It has been a conscious decision to select marine protected areas," he says. "First MPAs offer an incredible amount of field data and survey material, which are very useful for selecting the [installation] sites. It is also easier to deal with one authority - the MPA manager - when gaining permissions than with several authorities."

Managers at both MPAs have played an active role in planning the deployment of Taylor's sculptures. The director of the Mexican MPA, Jaime Gonzalez Cano, commissioned the upcoming project, compiled the environmental assessments, raised funds, and interacted with all the interested parties, including the tourist board, fisheries, diving companies, and the media. Once installed, the sculpture park there will require no special upkeep, says Taylor, as all the figures are designed to become "living" reef modules, slowly growing a mantle of coral around themselves. The project will officially be an underwater museum for which divers and snorkelers will pay a fee to visit.

For more information: Jason deCaires Taylor, England. E-mail: info [at] underwatersculpture.com


Cartoons: "Sweetening" the MPA message

Since 1991, Jim Toomey has drawn a daily comic strip called Sherman's Lagoon that now appears in more than 150 newspapers worldwide. Featuring an overweight, happy-go-lucky shark named Sherman and a regular cast of undersea characters, the cartoon takes place in a fictional lagoon in Micronesia. Sherman and his friends often make trips to other parts of the world's oceans, and those trips routinely reference real MPAs, like Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in California and Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawai`i. These references to real MPAs indicate the role that marine protected areas have assumed in Toomey's work.

In 1999, Toomey received a phone call from the U.S. National Marine Sanctuary Program, asking if he would be willing for Sherman the shark to serve as an outreach tool for educational projects. That led to what has become a series of Sherman-themed education tools produced for U.S. MPA programs with Toomey's help: from a poster describing different types of MPAs (http://mpa.gov/pdf/helpful-resources/education/Poster04companion.pdf), to one that summarizes the purposes of the national system of MPAs (www.noaaworld.noaa.gov/conservation/jun2009_conservation_1.html) to an activity sheet that helps educators to introduce the concept of MPAs to their students (http://mpa.gov/pdf/helpful-resources/education/mpaposter_activity.pdf).

Toomey says the entertainment value of cartoons helps deliver the MPA message to the public. "The advantage that cartoons have over other communication methods is that they entice people to read because there's a pay-off embedded in the material - a laugh, hopefully," he says. "If you take your average brochure about, say, marine debris, what often happens is the person will read a point or two and then get distracted. This is especially true in this day and age when we all have the attention span of tsetse flies, and so many other media compete for our attention. It's important to have some kind of 'sweetener' in the message that motivates people to read on." [Editor's note: Cartoons can also be valuable communications tools for resource managers in regions with low literacy rates or to communicate to young audiences - see "Educating Stakeholders about MPAs: Practitioners Use an Array of Methods", MPA News 8:7.]

Toomey acknowledges that cartoons are limited in the type and sophistication of information they can convey. "There's always a tradeoff," he says. "But the wider you cast your net in terms of the general public, the more you need to consider the entertainment component of your message."For more information: Jim Toomey, U.S. E-mail: jptoomey [at] yahoo.com


Theater: Resolving conflicts

At the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona in 2008, a training workshop for conservation practitioners demonstrated how theatrical techniques could be used to resolve environmental conflicts. With exercises that encouraged attendees to listen closely to one another and to play the roles of stakeholders with whom they might otherwise disagree, the workshop was designed to help participants to engage emotionally with the issues under discussion.

The workshop was led by María Bravo Font, an actress and environmental journalist. Although the use of theater techniques for creative conflict resolution is not new - search the Web for "creative conflict resolution" for links to many background sources - Bravo takes a particularly in-depth approach to it. She directs a Spanish firm, Teatrosfera, that combines expertise in psychology, ecology, and communications with theater to help resolve conflicts over environmental issues.

"Theater techniques invite us to put ourselves in others' places and to develop empathetic abilities, which facilitate conflict negotiation," says Bravo. "In addition, these techniques integrate the 'emotional' side of facts. This helps us discover unsuspected keys in the way we perceive conflicts. Emotions are the base that upholds our life attitudes. Therefore, a consideration of the emotional component of conflicts needs to complement the cognitive analysis of those conflicts."

Bravo says the objective of Teatrosfera's work is to motivate a more positive perception of conflicts - identifying opportunities for improvement and trying out different solutions. "The theater-playing provides a sense of playfulness that creates a relaxed, friendly working atmosphere, where listening, concentration and creativity are activated," she says. "We gain flexibility to adapt ourselves to changes, learn to be more tolerant, and see the value of what is different."For more information: María Bravo Font, Teatrosfera, Reus, Spain. E-mail: maria [at] teatrosfera.com


Dance: Telling a story

"People get it when you tell them a story - a story in which they can play a part in how it ends," says Kristin McArdle, a choreographer and artistic director who runs her own dance company in New York City. Her company, Kristin McArdle Dance, partners with conservation organizations, museums, and local businesses to raise environmental awareness through the arts. Her latest dance projects have focused on the marine environment, including the influence that humans have to impact it. "Dance," says McArdle, "can communicate messages of consequences and nuances to environments and actions. It provides an emotional catalyst for the audience to identify with the environment." (For video of her dances, go to www.kristinmcardledance.com.)

McArdle has applied to partner with the U.S. National Marine Sanctuary Program on a dance project that would travel to aquaria, science centers, and festivals. She notes that although her dance projects have incorporated complex concepts like overfishing, sustainable seafood, and even MPAs, the dances have not done it all alone. "Our dance program has provided background information about marine conservation and sustainable seafood, and I've spoken to the audience directly at intermission about what the dances hoped to evoke," says McArdle. "The purpose of the entire evening of art is to provide a context for the conservation message to be received. Most people don't know what marine protected areas are, but people will go see a performance inspired by the ocean or to celebrate the local community's relationship to the sea."

She completed a recent trip to Trinidad and Grenada to conduct research for a new dance piece on leatherback turtles - a dance folktale of the links between sea turtle behavior and ecology, fishermen's catches, and regional economic sustainability. The goal is to create something that shows the benefits of ecotourism, citizen science, and community conservation and management. She is collaborating on it with the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, and the dance will be performed by local artists in the Trinidadian and Grenadan communities she visited.

McArdle says that art and science communities share common interests, curiosities, and even goals, but ask very different questions and communicate in different ways. "Scientists often produce papers to communicate their findings and interpretations of their research, while artists produce art that asks people to see the world in a new way, or to notice something about how we behave that we never thought about before," she says. "Artists and conservation biologists share a love of the ocean and advocate ocean conservation and exploration, but we focus our attention, skills, and expression through very different mediums. However, we all want people to care about the human actions that affect these incredible creatures' ability to exist. Ultimately, ocean health determines human health."

For more information: Kristin McArdle, New York, U.S. E-mail: kristinmcardledance [at] me.com